Kiribati's President: 'Our Lives Are At Stake'

ByABC News
April 2, 2007, 5:23 PM

April 2, 2007 — -- For the people of Kiribati, global warming is not a distant, theoretical hazard. In this remote nation of 33 islands, located in the central Pacific Ocean, the land is disappearing one inch at a time, as ocean waves slowly creep inland.

ABC's Bill Weir toured Kiribati for the first part of his series, "Key to the World," which highlights major challenges to our time.

Kiribati occupies two million miles, mostly made of salt water and the inhabitle land of these islands could fit inside New York's city limits. Most of the 100,000 residents have never been off its necklace of coral, although many may have to move in this century as the region's president expects it will become unlivable in 50 years.

"We don't know how much longer we're going to have it," Kiribati's President Anote Tong told Weir.

Right now, the children of Kiribati, who have a literacy rate of 90 percent, spend their free time playing along the shore. But their playground could be eliminated if expected global warming trends progress, and the surrounding ocean water becomes warmer, pushing the seas higher as waves strengthen.

After narrowly defeating his brother for the presidency in 2003, Tong went to the United Nations in 2004 and 2005, and stunned world leaders by claiming his country will be gone by mid-century -- and would become the first sovereign victim of man-made climate change.

"Our very lives are at stake," he told the U.N.

When Weir asked for a time frame, he said it is a "certainty" that his land will disappear.

"I think it's a question of time," Tong said. "So, for planning purposes, I like to set a time at 50 years."

And he's concerned it could be too late to save Kiribati. "I believe that that is the case. The momentum has already been set some villages that have been there for centuries, they've had to move."

As the ocean challenges the land, another problem has emerged. While people scramble to build stronger homes and sea walls, they mine the beaches for bits of coral and rock to mix with mortar, and further challenge the island.